Cycling Plus #20:
Karakorum Chronicles Part 2: Hunza to the Chinese Border
Our panniers are stocked with local supplies; a string of dried figs, bags
of mixed nuts and a bottle of fresh apricot juice. So begins the second
our Karakoram Chronicles as jagged peaks rise above a featureless grey
valley, kindling an air of expectation. Easing away from this blackened
furnace, the 'Throneroom of the Gods' awaits us.
Scale soon wreaks havoc on our sense of perspective. Within a day's ride we
crane our necks towards ranges heavy with chunks of fresh thick snow.
glaciers gently bulldoze their way down to the road side, squeezing through
corridors of rock in a frozen wave. Forgotten suspension bridges lie strung
across the Indus, ropes frayed, planks missing, swaying in the wind like
sets from a Spielberg film.
Legend knows Hunza Valley as the lost Shangri-la, rich in tradition and
woven with mysticism. Tales are told of a realm forgotten by the course of
time, of spells cast by lovelorn suitors over locks of hair. But the
tentacles of commercial tourism are fast encroaching. Now, four wheel
drives and American Express herald the arrival of the 21st Century. 'How
long are you travelling for?' I ask a Swiss recumbent cyclist. 'Oh, maybe
5, 10 or 20 years,' he replies, twirling his Daliesque moustache
nonchalantly. 'Time is not a problem.' Perhaps the magic of the old
Hunzakuts still tinges the air today.
The road winds on once more, delving in and out of the shadows of 7,000
peaks, rising like a set of kitchen knives up and over the valley walls
around us. Spring water filters through the rockface, which we drink
abundantly in defiance of the heat of the day. 'Relax, you're out of a
landslide area,' a sign post informs us, as we pass gnarled electricity
pylons misshapened by random rockfall. Slabs of granite loom like citadels
lost in a swirl of cloud; solid yet precarious, restrained power in this
world of extremes.
At the border town of Sust, groups of men wander the main street, chadois
camiz flapping in the wind. There are no women to be seen. Tucking into
oily dahl in a
local restaurant, the television is flicked on and the room soon bustles
with Pakistani men. Skullcaps, topis, fist-length beards, young and old. In
Islamic Republic of Pakistan, it's World Wrestling Federation night. Live
by satellite, two semi-naked and glistening hulks battle before a crowd
in this slice of Western culture. 'Your country!' says a traditionally clad
bystander with a jubilant smile. 'No!' we reply as one. 'America!'
Continuing our climb, we reach the army post of Koksil, 4,200m, where we're
invited for tea by the friendly security forces. We contemplate this bleak
and lonely landscape, where mountains loom like forlorn giants in the
surrounding solitude. A series of switchbacks twist and turn until we
finally crest Khunjerab Pass, 4730m. Reflected in the mirrored shades of
Pakistani border guards, the sky is indigo blue, the snow bleached white
and rounded hills, polished like marble tops, gently rise and roll into the
A tiny red flag flutters on the other side of Zero Point, just 200m away.
China, our next destination on the road to Central Asia.